The Lion and the Gazelle
TONIGHT THE JEWS all over the world will celebrate the
Seder, the unique ceremony that unites Jews everywhere in the defining Jewish
myth: the Exodus from
Every year I marvel again at the genius of this ceremony. It unites the whole family, and everyone - from the venerable grandfather to the smallest child - has a role in it. It engages all the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. The simplistic text of the Haggadah, the book which is read aloud, the symbolic food, the four glasses of wine, the singing together, the exact repetition of every part every year - all these imprint on the consciousness of a child from the earliest age an ineradicable memory that they will carry with them to the grave, be they religious or not. They will never forget the security and warmth of the large family around the Seder table, and even in old age they will recall it with nostalgia. A cynic might see it as a perfect example of brain-washing.
Compared to the power of this myth, does it really matter that the Exodus
But this is quite unimportant. In the competition between "objective" history and myth, the myth that suits our needs will always win, and win big. It is not important what was, the important thing is what fires our imagination. That is what guides our steps to this day.
THE BIBLICAL narrative connects up with documented history only around the
year 853 BC, when ten thousand soldiers and 2000 battle chariots of Ahab, King
of Israel, took part in a grand coalition of the kingdoms of
(A personal note: I am not a historian, but for many years I have reflected on our history and tried to draw some logical conclusions, which are outlined here. Most of them are supported by the emerging consensus of independent scholars around the world.)
The kingdoms of
The "Jewish" revolution took place
in the Babylonian exile (587-539 BC). After the Babylonian conquest of
After some fifty years, some of the exiles
TO UNDERSTAND the birth and development of Judaism, one must consider two important facts:
Right from the beginning, when the "Jews" came back from
The Jews of that period were not a "nation"
- the very idea did not yet exist. The Jews of Palestine did not participate in
the rebellions of the Jews in
Jewish Diaspora was not a unique phenomenon. On the contrary, at that time it was
the norm. Notions like "nation" belong to the modern world. During
the period of the "
This social pattern was preserved in the Byzantine
Empire, was later taken over by the
The Jews were unique only in one respect: after the European peoples gradually moved on to new forms of organization, and in the end turned themselves into nations, the Jews remained what they were - a communal-religious Diaspora.
THE PUZZLE that is occupying the historians is: how did a tiny community of Babylonian exiles turn into a worldwide Diaspora of millions? There is only one convincing answer to that: conversion.
The modern Jewish myth has it that almost all the Jews are descendents of the Jewish community that lived in Palestine 2000 years ago and was driven out by the Romans in the year 70 AD. That is, of course, baseless. The "Expulsion from the Country" is a religious myth: God was angry with the Jews because of their sins and exiled them from His country. But the Romans were not in the habit of moving populations, and there is clear evidence that a great part of the Jewish population in the country remained here after the Zealots' Revolt and after the Bar-Kochba uprising, and that most Jews lived outside the country long before that.
At the time of the
Especially puzzling is the origin of "Ashkenazi" Jewry. At the
end of the first millennium there appeared in
There are several theories about that. The conventional one holds that
the Jews wandered from the Mediterranean area to the North, settled in the Rhein valley and fled from the pogroms there to
In a recent book with the provocative title "When and How the Jewish
People was Invented", the Israeli historian Shlomo
Sand argues - like Arthur Koestler and others before him - that most of the
Ashkenazi Jews are really descended from the Khazars,
a Turkic people that created a large kingdom in what is now South Russia more
than a thousand years ago. The Khazar king converted
to Judaism, and according to this theory the Jews of Eastern Europe are mostly the
descendants of Khazar converts. Sand also believes
that most Sephardi Jews are descendents of Arab and Berber
tribes in North Africa that had converted to Judaism instead of becoming
Muslims, and had joined in the Muslim conquest of
When Jewry stopped proselytizing, the Jews became a closed, ethnic-religious
community (as the Talmud says: "Converts are hard for
But the historical truth, whatever it is, is not so important. Myth is stronger than truth, and it says that the Jews were expelled from this land. This is an essential layer in modern Jewish consciousness, and no academic research can shake it.
IN THE LAST 300
The Jewish Diaspora, which - as mentioned before - was "normal"
2000 years ago, became "abnormal" and exceptional. This intensified
the Jew-hatred that was anyhow rampant in Christian Europe. Since all the
national movements in Europe were - more or less - anti-Semitic, many Jews felt
that they were left "outside", that they had no place in the new
For that purpose, it was necessary to reshape and reinvent Jewish history and turn it from the annals of a religious-ethnic Diaspora into the epic story of a "nation". The job was undertaken by a man who can be considered the godfather of the Zionist idea: Heinrich Graetz, a German Jew who was influenced by German nationalism and created a "national" Jewish history. His ideas have shaped Jewish consciousness to this day.
Graetz accepted the Bible as if
it were a history book, collected all the myths and created a complete and continuous
historical narrative: the period of the Fathers, the Exodus from
ZIONISM REPRESENTED a revolution in many fields, but its mental
revolution was incomplete. Its ideology turned the Jewish community into a
Jewish people, and the Jewish people into a Jewish nation - but never clearly
defined the differences. In order to win over the religiously inclined Jewish
masses in Eastern Europe, it made a compromise with religion and mixed all
terms into a one big cocktail - the religion is also a nation, the nation is
also a religion, and later asserted that Israel is a "Jewish state"
that belongs to its (Jewish?) citizens but also to the "Jewish
people" throughout the world. Official Israeli doctrine has it that
Herzl and his successors were not courageous enough to do what Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did when he founded modern
For example: if Israel is the state of the "Jewish people", as
one of our laws says - what is there to stop an Israeli Jew from joining the
Jewish community in California or Australia? Small wonder
that there is almost no leader in
WHY IS IT so important to differentiate between the Israeli nation and the Jewish Diaspora? One of the reasons is that a nation has a different attitude to itself and towards others than a religious-ethnic Diaspora.
Similarly: different animals have different ways of reacting to danger. A gazelle flees when it senses danger, and nature has equipped it with the necessary instincts and physical capabilities. A lion, on the other side, sticks to its territory and defends it against intruders. Both methods are successful, otherwise there would be no gazelles or no lions in the world.
The Jewish Diaspora developed an efficient response that was well suited to its situation: when Jews sensed danger, they fled and dispersed. That's why the Jewish Diaspora managed to survive innumerable persecutions, and even the Holocaust itself. When the Zionists decided to become a nation - and indeed did create a real nation in this country - they adopted the national response: to defend themselves and attack the sources of danger. One cannot, therefore, be a Diaspora and a nation, a gazelle and a lion, at the same time.
If we, the Israelis, want to consolidate our nation, we have to free ourselves from the myths that belong to another form of existence and re-define our national history. The story about the exodus from Egypt is good as a myth and an allegory - it celebrates the value of freedom - but we must recognize the difference between myth and history, between religion and nation, between a Diaspora and a state, in order to find our place in the region in which we live and develop a normal relationship with the neighboring peoples.